Course Hero. "The Known World Study Guide." Course Hero. 1 June 2017. Web. 24 Feb. 2018. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Known-World/>.
Course Hero. (2017, June 1). The Known World Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved February 24, 2018, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Known-World/
(Course Hero, 2017)
Course Hero. "The Known World Study Guide." June 1, 2017. Accessed February 24, 2018. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Known-World/.
Course Hero, "The Known World Study Guide," June 1, 2017, accessed February 24, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Known-World/.
In The Known World Edward P. Jones takes a close look at the system of slavery and the culture it produces. In a complex tapestry of personal stories, he portrays a range of relationships based on human ownership and manifests the effects of slavery in different characters. For example, Henry Townsend equates slave ownership with power and success. Once a slave, he later achieves the role of master. As such he must redefine himself, to differentiate himself from his "property." This requires him to embrace the values of the social system that once enslaved him.
Though Jones portrays antebellum slavery in America, this is only the backdrop for a much broader issue: What are the human origins and social impact of an institution built on dominance and oppression? He focuses on the uncomfortable, yet historically accurate, fact that it was not uncommon for free blacks in the South to own slaves. This allows Jones to explore, on a human level, how this could come about and what separates the slave from the master. This approach also frees the author and reader to consider the impact of slavery on individuals and society as a whole, including the illusion of freedom within such a society.
The law is an essential component of slavery. It separates master and slave, no matter who they are. For example, Henry sees no difference between himself and his first slave, Moses, until awareness of the law makes that distinction clear. As a freed black and the owner of human property, he must internalize the legally defined role of master and enforce the distinction between master and slave. It is Henry's responsibility to enforce this distinction if the law is to protect him. In addition, the law is there to maintain order and stability within the system. A dark thread of fear runs through the novel—a fear that the system of slavery may break down. The dreaded outcome is chaos, violence, and financial ruin. This view fails to consider violence undertaken to maintain the system, such as disabling or killing runaway slaves.
As Jones presents it, slavery is not only a racial issue but also a human one. No one escapes the system's toxicity, which poisons everyone involved, from master to slave to bystander, and perverts civilized notions of justice and humanity.
The relationship between master and slave is always dominated by the difference in power. Even when a relationship becomes caring and respectful, it is always uneven and self-serving on the part of the master.
For instance, William Robbins owns Henry Townsend for many years. In his position as Robbins's groom, Henry demonstrates dedication that earns his master's affection. Robbins looks forward to seeing Henry waiting when he returns from an arduous journey. Henry is a sign that the "storms" that plague Robbins's mind are over and he is safe. Robbins develops a love for Henry that is both generous and selfish. He makes sure Henry is clothed and well fed, but he raises the price on the boy's freedom to delay the time when Henry's father can buy his freedom. He misses Henry once the young man is gone. On the other hand, Henry respects William Robbins and, while enslaved, depends on him for everything in life. However, he sees a good relationship with Robbins mostly as a means of rising socially, first as a slave and later as a free man.
In some cases ownership combines with love and sexual desire, leading to complications and murky moral ground. Slavery's social system, including the superiority of the master and inferiority of the "property," are at war with physical attraction and emotional need. Several slave-owning characters are intimate with their slaves, while others harbor secret desires to be so. For example, Robbins has a free black mistress (once his slave) whom he loves more than his wife. They have two children together. On the other hand, Sheriff Skiffington fights his yearning for the maturing black girl, Minerva, whom he and his wife have raised as their daughter. Though he is an honorable man who detests slavery, he is tempted by the knowledge that slavery's customs would permit an intimate relationship with her.
As for slaves on the receiving side of their master's affection, some like Henry and Moses may use it to further their ambitions. For instance, Moses sees his relationship with Caldonia as his ticket to freedom and a better life. He makes love to her because he needs "to be able to walk through [the] back door ... without knocking." Minerva stays with her loving, adoptive white parents, the Skiffingtons, until an opportunity in Philadelphia allows her to slip away to a preferred life with a free black family.
Love tied to slavery is unavoidably warped and stunted by the institution. In The Known World Jones, without judgment, reveals the chaotic, often painful, consequences.
Jones explores the nature of freedom, as this state relates to the institution of slavery. Is it possible to be free while living under the laws of slavery?
Henry Townsend associates freedom with authority and dominance. He builds his life on the belief that wealth and status will assure his free state in society. Yet he builds that life inside the institution of slavery instead of seeking true freedom outside the system. Slavery taints every aspect of life in the community, and Henry cannot escape it. Though he believes he is free, it is an illusion. Under slavery's regulations, he is not free at all but is the property of his father. His wealth and status could be lost at any moment. Though he has achieved the status of master, he essentially does not own himself; he is still a slave.
Furthermore, Henry is morally enslaved by the institution of human bondage. Growing up under the guidance of William Robbins, his white master and eventual mentor, he is conditioned to accept the ways of slavery and to act upon them in order to achieve power and success. When Henry buys Moses, his first slave, his father severely reprimands him. Henry argues that "I ain't done nothin that any white man wouldn't do. I ain't broke no law." He aspires to own human property—to participate in the system rather than escape it.
In contrast to Henry's illusion of freedom, Alice, though physically enslaved, achieves a more authentic freedom in a unique way. She mentally constructs a new reality. She is believed to be mad following a kick in the head by a mule. However, her madness never interferes with her ability to work and seems to "clear up" once she escapes to freedom. Whether real or feigned, Alice's madness separates her psychologically from the realities of slavery, providing mental and spiritual freedom. Alice's state of mind allows her to choose her own attitude toward her life's circumstances.
The Known World explores the many facets of freedom and illustrates that no one is completely free under conditions of slavery. Each person is influenced physically, morally, and ethically by the institution—whether they approve of it or not. Forced to deal with the many aspects of slavery, individuals must manipulate their concept of who they are and what they believe.